The Reason Behind the Flooding of Great Salt Lake
In Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams blames a natural disaster—the overflowing of the Great Salt Lake in Utah--for the destruction of the place she loved most in the world, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. What Williams attempts to explain, however, is that this disaster wasn’t really “natural” at all. Refuge is critiqued by some for being over-dramatized, and Terry Tempest Williams is often criticized for blaming the world and others for the loss of the bird refuge. In fact, Williams is correct when she says that humans are responsible for the flooding of Salt Lake, which was caused by the construction of a railroad causeway that split Great Salt Lake into two bodies of water. The author is not a reckless finger-pointer, she is a realist.
In describing the bird refuge before the flooding, Williams goes into great detail about the abundance of birds and vegetation that inhabited her paradise: “Avocets and black-necked stilts are knee deep in water alongside interstate 80. Flocks of California gulls stand on a disappearing beach…I inhale the salty air. It is like ocean, even the lake is steel-blue with whitecaps”(Williams 30). In a visit to the bird refuge with her grandmother, she describes the refuge as a place full of life, with countless birds among beautiful plants and wildlife. Indeed, the bird refuge was a sanctuary to her; there was something magical, she writes, about seeing the thousands of different birds in one place, a sight that kept her going back.
The rise of Great Salt Lake engulfed the refuge, and as the flooding continued, the population of birds plummeted, Williams’ sanctuary turned into a graveyard filled with only memories of the birds she grew up loving. She describes the refuge as a place where everything that had once been familiar was now foreign. Eventually the refuge was closed and she could no longer visit her sanctuary. Williams illustrates this dramatic change with population figures at the refuge for the Utah ibis, which declined by more than half, from an estimated 8690 pairs in 1979 to 3438 pairs in a colony-nesting survey in 1985. The decline of Franklin gulls was even more radical. A late 1970’s survey showed a thousand breeding pairs, compared to the fifty-one nests counted this year” (Williams 111). These statistics reveal the huge impact of the lake’s flooding upon wildlife in the refuge.
Once we understand the history of Great Salt Lake, we see that the flooding was not nature’s fault. Salt Lake is an extremely shallow body of water, about 70 miles long and 30 miles wide but only 40 feet deep. It is a terminal lake, meaning that it has rivers as inlets but none as outlets to the ocean. Water can leave the lake only through evaporation, leaving its minerals behind. As a result, Great Salt Lake has eight times the amount of salt as sea water(www.virtuology.com/virtualmuseumofnaturalhistory/aquatichall/river).
Great Salt Lake’s water levels...